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New Rules May Make Flying Less Stressful

Shot of queue of passengers waiting at boarding gate at airport. Group of people standing in queue to board airplane.
By Richard Dahl on February 08, 2021 8:29 AM

If you ask someone during these pandemic days if they miss air travel, you're likely to get a mixed response.

It will probably be something along the lines of: “I miss travel. But I don't miss the airlines."

Or: “I like to see other parts of the world. But I don't like having to be treated like an infant in order to get there."

We will welcome the return of normal life someday, of course. And when we do, we will assume that along with the good will come the bad: poor treatment from the airlines.

But take heart! We have some reasonably good news:

While we were all focused on the ongoing pandemic and the fallout from the Capitol riots, the U.S. Transportation Department amended its rules on January 13 to make the airlines change their ways.

Shifting the Burden on Overbooking

The most important of these changes focus on the practice of overbooking flights. Overbooking is standard practice in the industry, allowing airlines to estimate how many people will become “no-shows" by changing their travel plans. When there are not enough no-shows, airlines offer incentives for people to give up their seats and, sometimes, bump people from flights involuntarily – occasionally in ugly fashion, as was the case with United Airlines and passenger David Dao in 2017.

Foremost among these changes, which go into effect on April 21, are new requirements that make it more difficult for airlines to kick people off flights as United Airlines did with Dao. Starting April 21, any passenger who boards a plane cannot be involuntarily removed from an overbooked flight.

DOT is not saying that the airlines must stop overbooking flights. The agency is just saying they must be more humane about it.

Other Rule Changes

In addition to banning expulsion of passengers once they board planes, the rules require heftier payments to those who are involuntarily bumped but who have not boarded the plane. The maximum amount they must pay involuntarily bumped passengers increases from $675 to $775 for delays of up two hours (or 200% of the ticket price if it less) and from $1,350 to $1,550 for longer delays (or 400% of the ticket price if it is less.)

Airlines will also face stricter requirements about notifying passengers of overbooked flights and what they must offer volunteers willing to give up their seats. In addition to travel or mileage vouchers, they must "proactively offer to pay compensation" rather than waiting for the passenger to request it. 

The rules also raise the higher liability on airlines for luggage that is lost, damaged, or delayed from $3,500 to $3,800.

There still won't be much we can do about cramped legroom or annoying seatmates. But at least we will know that once we're on the plane they can't drag us off – unless we have it coming.

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